Careers for all: Not just another ‘dirty job’

Addressing labor shortage in local construction industry requires active engaement with partners

Avaly Scarpelli

In October, the Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative convened a group of construction industry leaders to add practical information and real-time experiences to workforce data they have gleaned and analyzed for our industry on the state of our workforce. About 50 people spent the morning of October 25 digesting the good news (construction is in full swing, companies are growing, we offer good quality jobs) and laboring over strategies to address the key challenge (we have a labor shortage and it is difficult to find workers quickly).

The construction industry is not alone in its labor woes. According to Anthony Anton, CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association (restaurants/lodging), their industry faces a shortage of 9,000 line cooks state-wide. Manufacturers locally bemoan that training labor now seems to be the responsibility of the employer, which slows down work.

In fact, according to Dennis Kampe, former Clark County Skills Center Executive Director, “there is no question that there is a shortage of skilled workers in the United States. What may be less well known is that the shortage covers multiple professions in many industries.”

Together, construction (60,000 jobs) and advanced manufacturing (100,000 jobs) account for 16 percent of the greater Portland region’s private-sector employment. In Washington, nearly 40 percent of construction workers earn $30/hour or more and one-third of advanced manufacturing’s workforce earns $40 hourly or more.

These are good paying jobs. People are still looking for work. Approximately 87,000 seniors graduate from high school in our state every year. So what’s going on here?

A big hurdle for the trades is the college-going culture that has been proselytized by high schools for over a decade. According to the College Board “a college-going culture builds the expectation of postsecondary education for all students.” When 57 percent of all jobs require a technically skilled workforce and 33 percent of all jobs require a bachelor’s degree or higher, it seems like this is leading many young people down the wrong path.

Mike Rowe, host of the popular Discovery channel show “Dirty Jobs” has become a respected and passionate advocate for encouraging students to pursue careers in the skilled trades. Mr. Rowe spends a significant amount of time speaking about the widening skills gap, and challenging the persistent belief that a four-year degree is automatically the best path for the most people.

“Consider the number of college graduates today, who can’t find work in their chosen field,” Rowe posted on his personal Facebook page. “Hundreds of thousands of highly-educated twenty-somethings are either unemployed or getting paid a pittance to do something totally unrelated to the education they borrowed a fortune to acquire. Collectively, they hold $1.3 trillion of debt, and no real training for the jobs that actually exist. Now, consider the country’s widening skills gap – hundreds of thousands of good jobs gone begging because no one wants to learn a useful trade. It’s madness. ‘College for all’ might sound good on the campaign trail, but in real life, it’s a dangerous platitude that reinforces the ridiculous notion that college is for people who use their brains, and trade schools are for people who use their hands. As if the two cannot be combined.”

Locally, Dennis Kampe, who is now the Development Director for the Skills Center Foundation, has been championing this same message for a long time.

“It should be ‘careers for all students’ not ‘college for all,’ he said. “Education is about the student’s needs, not college admissions requirements. We need schools to start valuing, respecting and promoting all post-secondary pathways!”

To demonstrate this value, more students need to have access and opportunity to take CTE (Career and Technical Education) classes. This requires high school graduation requirements that allow flexibility in a student’s schedule so they can take courses that prepare them to pursue a career pathway of their choice.

Earlier this month at the Building Industry Association of Washington’s state board meeting, the Legislative Policy Committee and state board adopted a proactive statement to support the development and implementation of education programs focused on work-based training. It is vitally important the construction industry promote job and life-skill educational, career-connected opportunities for anyone interested in construction.

Introducing the next generation of builders to the industry will take broad partnerships and action to expand career technical education and to incentivize trades credits and training in schools. This likely means working with the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education on graduation requirements. This also entails looking at a more common sense approach to labor laws so youth are allowed summer jobs (or any jobs) on construction jobsites. This will give them a firsthand look at the construction industry and help them learn critical skills for their future success.

In addition to the school system component, industry has to be willing to invest more in training. For the construction industry, this means we need to consider development of public-private partnerships with local colleges and trade schools. More of our members will be called upon to offer mentoring and job shadow opportunities on worksites for young adults considering going into the trades and our leadership will continue to speak at career day events at local schools. We will also need to be prepared to provide funding of tools and supplies necessary in the classroom/learning environment setting.

According to the Columbia-Willamette Regional Workforce Collaborative’s website, “The quality of the region’s workforce is a primary driver of economic development and the region’s overall economic health. Regions who most effectively manage their talent are likely to be more competitive and will attract the quality of jobs people need to support themselves and their families.”

Like many other industries facing these same challenges, we need to actively engage with partners in the region who are working on these matters to harness their insight and expertise. The Collaborative is focused on aligning and investing resources to support the workforce needs of four sectors: Advanced Manufacturing, Health Care, Software/IT and Construction. The Building Industry Association of Clark County will be supporting them as they determine priority areas, develop workgroups and refine actionable strategies to finalize a regional workforce plan that our industry can work together on implementing.

If you are a business leader in one of the industries they serve, I encourage you to join forces with the Collaborative so together the business community of Southwest Washington can support the workforce that will feed our collective business success.

Avaly Scarpelli is the executive director of the Building Industry Association of Clark County.

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